New client development is the lifeblood of law firms and the lawyers who comprise them. Although many firms have perennial clients that remain active through even the worst of times with a steady flow of new files, new business development permits law firms to grow, evolve and survive for the long term. A static and unwavering book of business is nonetheless important, but can also lead to complacency, paralysis and boredom.
One of the primary challenges for many young lawyers is how to find, develop and maintain new clients. In other words, many young lawyers get caught up in the world of external marketing. Moreover, developing business is an important aspect in any firm, regardless of size, practice group or geographic location. Focusing on external marketing, however, can become discouraging and otherwise daunting, especially because associates often lack the experience, credibility, connections, wherewithal and other factors that many rainmakers are so familiar with.
The skills to tackle the harrowing world of external marketing can often be developed in a much more forgiving and attainable environment: within the friendly confines of an associate’s law firm. Focusing on internal marketing, while developing the skills to market new clients outside of the firm, can be an important first step in professional development. Moreover, maintaining a steady workflow inside the firm can ensure the longevity that a young lawyer needs to reach milestones in a career that make obtaining and developing new clients more realistic.
After all, clients are weary to grant work to young lawyers, and will be even less likely to bestow work upon practitioners who are unable to succeed at their own firms. In many firm environments, young lawyers are not simply handed a steady, consistent and fulfilling workflow. Instead, it is important for newer practitioners to become known within the firm (regardless of the size of the firm), and venture outside of their offices, to ensure that annual billable hour requirements are satisfied. An associate’s marketing of himself or herself within the firm is just as important as marketing to the outside world.
Early in my career as an associate, I arrived at the realization that clients were not necessarily going to be knocking down my door with new work. I do my best to stay active in bar and industry events, and pursue other paths to market my name and skills to potential clients. At the same time, however, I understand that client development is a skill and opportunity developed over time, not automatically created by passing the bar examination. With those thoughts in mind, I began to focus on developing into a good practitioner and member of my firm, which have created a strong basis for my external marketing endeavors.
As an associate at a law firm, my first level of clients is the more seasoned practitioners for which I work. The ultimate client can often be more indirect and distant at the early stages in a career. Serving partners and more senior associates, as is the first and foremost duty of any associate, follow the same pattern as serving external clients. Some of the most vital traits for providing exceptional service, to partners and clients alike, include submitting strong work product, going above and beyond the call, staying connected and responsive, and, finally, working for increased responsibility in the future. Not only will these traits help a young associate flourish internally at the firm, but the same traits can form a strong basis for external marketing opportunities, business development and new client obtainment.
Providing Strong Work Product
As lawyers, we are only as good as the service that we provide. Often, however, the evaluation of work product falls into the hands of lay juries, busy judges and other seemingly uncertain evaluators. Regardless, maintaining a consistently strong level of work product will ensure the highest possibility of success on the merits of the issues at hand, even if the ultimate result remains uncertain. It is important to return to the assigning attorney and, in fact, the client, an effort that an associate is willing to stand behind and otherwise be proud of.
Typos, unreasonable arguments, a lack of due diligence in research, poor sentence structuring, a lack of application of law or fact, or other sloppy workmanship not only ruins the specific project, but also takes a significant bite out of an associate’s reputation. Good lawyers become known within their firms and even externally to clients.
It is important to ensure that every piece of work product that leaves an associate’s office is respectable, if not perfect. The same level of work product and service that is provided by associates internally can easily translate to new and existing clients. Learning to do good work now will inevitably assist in the future with new client development.
No partner and, in the future, no client, desires a practitioner who cannot even control the quality of his or her own work product. Good work fosters trust and tilts even the most uncertain matters in a favorable direction. Moreover, providing a high level of work product is a career-building activity with widespread, positive ramifications. There is no better sales pitch to a prospective business opportunity than a track record of being absolutely great at what you do.
Going Above and Beyond
Going above and beyond has become an everyday cliché and technical business catchphrase that is often overused and misunderstood. It does not necessarily mean, in the context of a young lawyer at least, setting up a partner’s shoe-shining appointment or sending biweekly fruit baskets to favorite or prospective clients. Instead, it involves anticipating needs and resolving loose ends ahead of time. There is no better feeling than being asked, “Well, Mr. Associate, what are we going to do with issue X as a follow-up to your last project?” when you can respond, “Actually, partner/client, I already found a solution to X, which means we should do Y, and let’s not forget about tying everything up with Z.”
Anticipating and satisfying needs is vital to success in the eyes of superiors and clients alike. Moreover, with regard to developing new clients, a little research into a potential target, coupled with some additional thought as to their anticipated needs, turns an empty sales pitch into a productive meeting. People take comfort in a member of the service industry who is cognizant of their needs, both those that are expressed and those that are likely to arise in the future. Sure, the occasional fruit basket will not decrease the odds of likeability, but good service, above and beyond the baseline expectation, will ensure continued gratitude and loyalty, both inside and outside the firm.
Staying Connected and Responsive
I have written articles in the past about maintaining a work-life balance, which is unwaveringly important from the perspectives of sanity, happiness and longevity. Sometimes, it is important to take a break from the office and shut off the nagging electronic devices. At the same time, remaining connected at the right times is just as important (hence the “balance” in the work-life balance). When big issues come up, an associate’s job is to be attentive, responsive and ready with answers, regardless of when they arise. Moreover, new and existing clients will be forever indebted if a lawyer bails them out in an emergency bind.
Periodic checks to voicemail and email while out of the office will not irreversibly tilt the work-life scales in an unfavorable direction. Unanswered emails, unreturned voicemails and ignored requests often lead to an undesirable result: missed opportunities. You never know when an external lead will come calling with an emergency, and the first step toward securing a potential suitor is being available when the telephone rings. Furthermore, when an assignment comes in, or a new client is available or willing to talk, quick turnaround times keep you in the front of their minds. Connectivity, and the speed of responsiveness, will positively serve a young lawyer inside and outside the firm.
Working for Increased Responsibility
Responsibility often grows with trust. While a partner or client may review a newer lawyer with complete oversight, trusted practitioners often have freer reign over their cases and decision-making. New clients, and partners working with associates for the first time, will often start with a small assignment. Nonetheless, it is important, both within firms and externally for marketing purposes, to get a foot in the door and to obtain the first assignment.
The goal should always be to do better and more for each subsequent assignment. Expanding responsibilities and, in turn, developing relationships with clients and partners, is a vital step in the development of a career and book of business. There is no greater professional accomplishment than gaining the trust of your peers and clients.
Overall, these traits help foster the ultimate goal for any practitioner: indispensability. If they work inside the firm to provide a strong work product, go above and beyond in their tasks, stay connected and responsive to needs, and always work ahead for increased responsibility, young lawyers can become irreplaceable individuals to both partners and clients alike. Showcasing these traits to new or potential clients can create longstanding and lucrative business connections. Young lawyers may not always become rainmakers in the first few years of practice, but providing exceptional service to those inside the firm can easily translate externally into a respectable book of business. Clients are generally on the lookout for great lawyers, not empty sales pitches.
Michael J. Joyce is an associate of the commercial law and litigation practice group in the Pittsburgh office of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, focusing his practice on commercial disputes and products liability matters. He can be reached at 412-281-7272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.